AUNT JEMIMA SYMBOLIZES
MUCH BIGGER OBJECTIVES
Thank God somebody still has a sense of humor. The Christian satire website, Babylon Bee, perfectly captures the current madness over ethnic symbolism.
As everyone knows by now, Quaker/PepsiCo has come under pressure to retire the Aunt Jemima image on its popular line of breakfast products. Likewise the Black chef on B&G Foods’ Cream of Wheat hot cereal, and Uncle Ben, the dapper gentleman who personifies the famous parboiled rice marketed by Mars, Inc.
This tracks with ongoing objections to sports team names and school mascots based on Native American themes and images — Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, and other such points of contention.
And it parallels concern about so-called cultural appropriation. That’s the sin White people supposedly commit when they adopt the clothing, hairstyles, music, and other accouterments associated with groups of which they aren’t members.
It is certainly true that ethnic images have not always been used respectfully. In the past, advertisers assumed that stereotypical representations would attract consumers to certain products. And given the prejudices of those days, maybe they did.
I have never quite understood the objection to ethnic images (as such), as long as they aren’t being used in offensive ways. And, I guess you can attribute that to my not being Black or Native American, or of any other non-European ethnicity. We’re told, after all, that White people “just don’t get it,” and so I guess I don’t.
I’m of primarily Ukrainian and Polish background. If some sports team decided to call itself the Cossacks, I would take that as a tribute to the fierce independence of my Slavic ancestors and their renowned military prowess.
If some company decided to brand its products with the image of Taras Bulba, the great literary icon of Ukrainian patriotism, I’d consider that a compliment as well.
“The cultural appropriation idea is not only deeply divisive, it’s harmful to the interests of those groups it claims to protect ….
“While I certainly understand that people don’t like outsiders mocking their group identity, characteristics, or ‘indigenous wear’ [clothing, hairstyles, etc.], drawing rigid proprietary lines is not an altogether wise idea.
“Throughout history, sharing cultural elements has been one of the most effective ways by which various population groups have advanced themselves.
“Grouse, if you will, about George Gershwin or Elvis Presley getting rich by popularizing music whose roots were in the ‘Black Experience.’ Would the African American community be better off if Whites hadn’t taken jazz, blues, gospel, soul or reggae to their hearts? What opportunities would have been denied talented, creative Black performers?”
Forcing removal of the Aunt Jemima image involves a story that goes beyond self-defeating objections to cultural appropriation. There are real people involved.
The Aunt Jemima character was given life by two women, the first a former slave named Nancy Green, who took on the role in 1893. She functioned as the brand’s national representative, demonstrating the product around the country until her death in a car accident in 1923. The second living embodiment of Aunt Jemima was Anna Short Harrington, who played the role for 20 years, beginning in 1935.
So thoroughly was Harrington associated with the character — and so successful was the promotional campaign based on her portrayal — that her descendants attempted to sue for residual benefits after her death. Unfortunately, the effort failed when their claim of legal standing was denied.
The prospect of seeing Aunt Jemima evaporate into the mists of time is a second disappointment to the family. Patch, a regional newspaper that covers developments in the Chicago area, interviewed Larnell Evans Sr., Harrington’s great-grandson, who insisted…
“This is an injustice for me and my family. This is part of my history …. The racism they talk about, using images from slavery, that comes from the other side — White people. This company profits off images of our slavery. And their answer is to erase my great-grandmother’s history. A black female .… It hurts.”
Other real people are being erased also, particularly Frank L. White, a Chicago chef, whose stylized face has adorned the Cream of Wheat box, and Frank Brown, a Chicago maître d’hôtel, who has represented Uncle Ben. (Chicago looms large in the history of packaged food marketing.)
I assume that, in some convoluted way, this hubbub over ethnic imagery is related to the impulse behind toppling statues and defacing historical monuments (the latest being those of Ulysses S. Grant and Fr. Junipero Serra, missionary/pioneer of California). But if you’re concerned about exploitation of minority peoples in advertising, wouldn’t it make more sense to simply pressure companies to pay their models better — or, in the case of those who’ve died, to remunerate their families?
In a way, this conflict over symbols is only symbolic of the real conflict — the one that’s ongoing and intensifying daily — the one over our nation’s future. As I have also written, and subsequent events confirm …
“There’s increasing discomfort about race — far worse now than before we had our first Black President (a shared national experience that was supposed to herald post-racial, inter-ethnic amity) ….
“I keep running into confused souls who ask why all the division and disorder have come to flower at this particular moment. The answer, of course, is that it’s intentional ….
“The Left has decided that this is the moment. The ‘Long March through the Institutions’ has reached its climax. Now is the time to bring the system down.”
If African American figures which the country has long embraced have to go … well, goodbye, Aunt Jemima.
An interesting variation on the ethnic symbolism conflict is playing out in Britain, where a former member of Parliament, Fiona Onasanya, has attacked the Kellogg Company over cartoon images appearing on cereal packages. Rice Krispies boxes feature the iconic “Snap, Crackle and Pop” characters, while Coco Pops features a monkey named “Coco.” Onasanya (who spent three months in jail over charges related to traffic violations and obstruction of justice) recently tweeted…
“Coco Pops and Rice Krispies have the same composition (except for the fact [Coco Pops] are brown and chocolate flavoured)… so I was wondering why Rice Krispies have three white boys representing the brand and Coco Pops have a monkey?”
A clear-thinking critic explores the complexities of corporate logic…
While some unknown but creative designer suggests a couple of package revisions that would please conservatives — featuring Candace Owens…
This guy may be on to something.